'Still Better Than Africa': Inside Israel's Detention Camp for Migrants

Some 10,500 Sudanese and Eritrean men have passed through Israel's desert detention center's gates since they opened three years ago.

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The Holot detention facility, September 2014.
The Holot detention facility, September 2014.Credit: AP
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

The state has now spent nearly 1 billion shekels ($260 million) holding 10,500 African asylum seekers at the Holot detention center since it first opened in southern Israel three years ago.

As the facility’s detainees sit on white plastic chairs in the middle of the desert, they count the days. It’s a precise, despondent counting. They’re all from Eritrea or Sudan, most of them in peak condition. Every one of them remembers the date he left his apartment, friends and workplace, and entered the Holot detention facility against his will. The day his life was cut off.

They look for ways to pass the time and fight off boredom. It will be this way until their year’s detention is over and they can start again.

Some of them spend most of the day in bed, trying to sleep away the time as much as they can. Others leave the facility and spend a lot of the day in the adjacent lot, just so as not to be behind barbed wire. They play cards, smoke hookahs, listen to music and drink coffee or beer. Only a few leave the area of the facility. Some hike in the desert, lost in their thoughts. A handful blow their monthly allowances on trips to Be’er Sheva or Tel Aviv, where they watch life going on and mourn their lost time.

Not much has changed in the three years since the facility opened. Of the 10,500 detainees the Israel Prison Service says have been held here, many stayed for lengthy periods. Others gave up after a short time and bowed to the pressure to return to their countries of origin or go to a third country – Uganda or Rwanda.

There have also been others who reported to Holot but couldn’t take it: they walked out and never came back. Those caught by the immigration inspectors are sent to Saharonim Prison across the road. After they serve time there, they are then sent back to Holot.

“On October 23, 2015, they told me to come to Holot. They gave me 21 days,” recounts Garya, 35, from Eritrea. “I didn’t come to Holot; I kept on working. Immigration arrested me and took me to Saharonim. I was there for 3.5 months, after which I came to Holot. I’ve been in Holot three months and eight days.”

Before Holot, he had lived in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood and worked as a cleaner. He misses it. “What do you do here? Sleep 24 hours? There’s nothing to do here,” he sighs.

The small, crowded rooms at Holot have five bunk beds, dressers, a bathroom and a shower room. Air conditioners and heaters were installed only after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice in January 2015.

There are three wings, each with dining rooms, classrooms and a medical clinic. The residents have long complained that the food is poor and unvarying, that there’s almost no educational enrichment and only limited medical services.

Residents must be in the facility between the hours of 10 P.M. and 6 A.M. During the day they can leave, but few do. The only bus line in the area serves mainly soldiers at nearby army bases and makes its way to Be’er Sheva once an hour. In his three months at Holot, Garya has only taken the bus three times – once to Be’er Sheva and twice to Tel Aviv, leaving in the morning and returning in time for the night head count. “I get 16 shekels a day. To Be’er Sheva I pay 34 shekels. How can I travel?” he asks.

The state spent 320 million shekels to build the facility and spends 187 million shekels every year on running costs. A rough calculation shows that, assuming the facility is full, every resident costs the state 55,000 shekels annually. Over three years, the total outlay has been close to a billion shekels.

The three wings can hold 3,360 people. Over the past year it was almost fully occupied. But during the past two months, hundreds completed their one-year maximum stint and were released, and few have replaced them; now there are around 1,860 Eritreans and Sudanese there. It is not known how many were summoned to Holot and never showed up, preferring instead to take their chances and risk being caught and sent to Saharonim.

A cold wind blows through Holot during an afternoon visit. After dark, the desert temperatures plummet.

“It’s really cold at night. Everyone gets one blanket, but it’s not a blanket,” says Barihu, 32, from Eritrea. Fortunately, he has an extra blanket because a friend who was released gave him his. Others buy their own. Barihu is wearing torn sandals. “We have nothing,” he says. “No shoes, no socks. If I want to smoke, if I want to buy shampoo or laundry powder – if you don’t work, where do you get the money?”

Ibrahim and Hussein, relatives from the Darfur district in Sudan, are sitting together outside the facility. They both came to Israel five years ago and settled in Eilat. Hussein, 31, is supposed to be released next week since his year is up; Ibrahim, 27, only reported to Holot three weeks ago.

“My head isn’t working. All my friends are leaving. I’ll be here by myself soon,” says Ibrahim. “I’d heard on the news that a person from Darfur doesn’t go into Holot. I brought all my papers, everything, [proving] that I’m from Darfur. I showed it all to Immigration, they made copies and said they’d call me in a few days. Since then, no one has called me.”

Ibrahim was referring to a statement made by the Population, Immigration and Border Authority two months ago, as part of a legal proceeding, that it had decided not to summon any more Darfur natives to Holot because most of them had made asylum requests long ago that were never answered. The authority said it would also cancel summonses that had already been issued to Darfurians. But there are plenty of Darfurians in Holot, some of whom, like Ibrahim, arrived after the authority’s decision.

Hussein isn’t sure what he will do after he gets out. All those released receive a visa, which states that they cannot live or work in Tel Aviv or Eilat, where he worked as a cleaner in a hotel. “I can’t go back to Eilat, so I don’t know where I’ll go,” he says, “I only know Eilat, I don’t know anyplace else in Israel. He has friends in Ashdod and Netanya, so he will probably live with them. “I have no choice,” he adds.

Going back to Sudan or flying to Uganda or Rwanda aren’t options, Hussein continues. Every Holot resident knows someone who gave up and left Israel, and those who could maintain contact said that they’d made a big mistake.

“A week or so ago, a brother died there,” relates Hussein. “He didn’t die, they killed him,” interjects Ibrahim.

They are referring to Mohammed Ahmed, an asylum seeker from Darfur whose family reported that he’d been killed by the authorities shortly after returning from Israel. “I hear a lot of things, people saying, ‘My brother went back and disappeared, we don’t know what happened to him,’” says Hussein. “So where should I go? Holot is better than Africa.”

“That’s why I’m in jail,” adds Barihu. “It’s better than going back to Uganda, Rwanda or anywhere in Africa. When it will be good in Africa, I won’t stay here another minute. We don’t come [to Israel] for money. We want to save our lives, that’s it.”

The Israel Prison Service responded to residents’ complaints by saying it wasn’t aware of detainees being cold. “All the public buildings, as well as the residents’ rooms, have air conditioners. Blankets are distributed to the residents upon request.” It added that “issues regarding the food, bringing items into the facility and educational activities are being heard by the High Court of Justice.”

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority addressed the presence of Darfurians in Holot. “From the day the decision was made, we have not referred Sudanese nationals from the Darfur region to Holot,” it said in a statement. “At the same time, we began an orderly process of checking those already staying in Holot about whom there’s an indication that we are indeed talking about citizens of the Darfur region. Many of them have been released and the process is expected to end in a few days. In addition to these moves, new claims have arisen regarding people about whom there is no clear indication that they come from Darfur, and those claims will be checked over time.”

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